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Posts Tagged ‘Geoffrey Chaucer’

Right As Rain

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 28, 2013

An online friend was wondering what the expression right as rain really means and how it wound up being part of the English language. To answer her question, when something is right as rain everything is functioning optimally … perfectly, in fact.

USA Today sometimes has the most unexpected articles, and the one about Portland, Oregon on March 29, 2010 certainly surprised a number of readers. Portland’s storm sewer system, it was reported, was a tourist attraction for eco-friendly tourists interested in checking out Portland’s system of curbs, gutters, roofs and rain gardens. Who knew? Of course, the article was aptly entitled, “Portland’s Sewers Right As Rain.”

Back on July 17, 1952 the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper reported on how the Russian government in Moscow was unhappy about the upcoming conference in Honolulu that intended to set up a permanent Pacific defense council. The Russians were said to be against the prospect of such a defense council. In fact, the situation was such a hot button for both sides that the reporter wrote in part:

The Reds suspect that a treaty organization designed to prevent the spread of Communism in the Pacific world, similar to the existing North Atlantic Treaty Organization already service the same purpose in Europe, will come out at the Honolulu conference in August, and they are right as rain about that.

The Saskatoon Phoenix newspaper edition of July 3, 1915 carried a news article entitled, “Tommy Is An Optimist.” Written by a special correspondent with British Headquarters in the Field during WWI, the journalist rose above the horrors of war to include the personal side of global conflict. It’s not that he didn’t acknowledge that war was ugly business and that everyone suffered because of it, but rather, he chose to give insight into the humanity that still existed among soldiers. The article included an anecdote that happened between the chaplain and one of the soldiers brought in on a stretcher to be treated by doctors.

“Would you like to send your people a postcard, my boy?” said the Chaplain, and went on to the next stretcher. “Does — does this mean that I am going to die?” asked the lad, as he tried to scrawl a name across the front of the card.

“Nonsense,” retorted an orderly who was passing. “You’ll be as right as rain in a week.”

“Then I’ll wait before I write,” said the soldier. “There’s no use wasting the card. Besides, it says ‘I am wounded.’ I am not wounded — I’m full of this bloody gas, and as soon as me chest is clear I’m going back to ‘do’ for some of those Germans. Give us a drink!”

Some sources claim that the expression was first published in 1894 however Idiomation found a published version in a Boston Daily Globe newspaper dated March 21, 1893 in a serialized story entitled, “Fated To Suffer: The Mystery of the Blood Red Star.”  While Idiomation was unable to find an earlier publication of the phrase, that it is found in a newspaper dating back to 1893 indicates that it was already in use among the masses and as such, it can be assumed that it most likely dates back to at least 1880.

That being said, the qualifier right as has been used in a number of idioms before this date. Some of the alternatives include:

1.  Right as an adamant from “Romance Of The Rose” translated by Geoffrey Chaucer (1300 – 25 October 1400) from the poem by Guillaume de Lorris (1200 – 1240):

For by ensample tel I this,
Right as an adamant, ywis,
Can drawen to hym subtelly
The yron that is layde therby,
So draweth folkes hertes, iwys,
Syluer and golde that yeuen is.

2.  Right as a line from “Minor Poems” by John Lydgate (1370 – 1451) and published in 1430:

That heuenly spyce, hit is ful swete;
Help us perof, good bysshop Fermyae,
Sacred Cipriane, zif hit wold be gete,
With Cosme and Damane wold I dyne,
Lede us pederward as ryght as a lyne,
Seynt Myghel, to pat heuenly kyngdome
Helpyng the holy doctour Seynt Ierome.

3.  Right as is my leg from the translation by Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611 – 1660) of “Gargantua and Pantagruel” originally written by François Rabelais (1490 – 1553) and published in 1653:

I saw another surrounded by a Croud of two sorts of Women; some were young, quaint, clever, neat, pretty, juicy, tight, brisk, buxom, proper, kind-hearted, and as right as my Leg, to any man’s thinking. The rest were old, weather-beaten, over-ridden, toothless, blear-ey’d, tough, wrinkled, shrivell’d, tawny, mouldy, ptysicky, decrepit hags, beldams, and walking Carcasses.

4.  Right as my leg from “The Comical History of Don Quixote: As It Was Acted At The Queen’s Theater In Dorset Garden By Their Majesties Servants” in Part III, Act III Scene ii by Thomas D’Urfey (1653 – 26 February 1723) and published in 1696:

Jolly Ralph was in with Pegg,
Tho freckled like a Turkey-Egg;
And she as right as is my leg,
Still gave him leave to touse her.

5.  Right as my glove from “Antiquary” by Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) and published in 1816:

“Right, Caxon! right as my glove! By the by, I fancy that phrase comes from the custom of pledging a glove as the signal of irregragable faith — right, I saw, as my glove, Caxon — bet we of the Protestant ascendancy have the more merit in doing that duty for nothing, which cost money in the reign of that empress of superstition, whome Spenser, Caxon, terms, in his allegorical phrase.”

6.  Right as ninepence from “Frank Fairlegh: Scenes From The Life Of A Private Pupil” by Francis Edward Smedley (4 October 1818 – 1 May 1864) and published in 1850:

“Well, let her say ‘no’ as if she meant it,” said Lawless; “women can, if they like, eh? and then it will all be as right as ninepence. Eh! don’t you see?”

“Easier said than done, Lawless, unfortunately,” replied Coleman; “my fat rival is the son of an opulent drysalter, and last year he contrived to get rid of his father.”

And so while the idiom right as rain can only be traced back to the late 19th century, it would seem that what follows right as isn’t always important as long as it’s right as … as the many examples have proven.  So it’s actually right as that determines that everything is perfectly fine and good, and in the case of right as rain, it’s just a nice bit of alliteration as well.

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Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Unknown | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Spit Or Go Blind

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 12, 2013

It’s not often that you hear someone say they don’t know if they should spit or go blind, but when someone uses that expression, what they’re really saying is that they’re confused about what they should say or do next.  Of course, the question begs to be asked:  Who exactly uses that kind of language and where did the expression come from in the first place?

On March 14, 2012 a new entry was published in the series discussing digital formats, sampling rates, and more on the audiophile-musings blog.  It was a condensed yet comprehensive piece that made the subject easier to understand for those who didn’t work in the music industry.  Midway through the entry, the following was written:

Musicians, producers, and audiopphiles alike are all about to “spit or go blind” when it comes to the future of digital audio. The Blu-Ray disc, with its infancy in 2002, created a storage medium exactly the same physical size as the CD but with over 7 times the storage capacity. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Almost a generation before that, Reg Silvester wrote an article for the Edmonton Journal that was published in their September 17, 1980 edition.  The article, entitled “Choreopoem Reaches Out Across All Barriers” reviewed a theater performance at the Rice Theatre.  The review began with this:

Every so often, somebody comes at you with something from a cultural or social base so strange that you don’t know whether to spit or go blind.

Now, 22 years before that (to the day) outfielder Harvey Kuenn was quoted as having said this about a home run hit by Mickey Mantle at Tiger Stadium:

I didn’t know whether to laugh, spit, or go blind!

The fact of the matter is that the expression doesn’t appear very often in newspaper articles or in literature before this, however, readers know for Harvey Kuenn to have used it so easily in 1958 that it was a recognized idiom of the day.  This implies that it goes back at least to the generation previous pegging it at sometime in the 1920s.

That being said, the word blind has its own interesting history that gives a twist to the expression spit or go blind.  The original sense of the word blind meant confused and not sightless, as attested to in the early 1600s.  In fact, Geoffrey Chaucer (1300 – 25 October 1400) wrote “The Chanouns Yemanns Tale” (part of “The Canterbury Tales“) where the following passage using the word blind (blynde) is found:

Telle how he dooth, I pray thee hertely,
Syn that he is so crafty and so sly.
Wher dwelle ye, if it to telle be?”
“In the suburbes of a toun,” quod he,
“Lurkynge in hernes and in lanes blynde,
  
Where as thise robbours and thise theves by kynde
Holden hir pryvee fereful residence,
As they that dar nat shewen hir presence.

In this context, blind meant the alley was closed at one end (a dead end).  By 1702, blind also meant anything that obstructed one’s sight, and thus the blind alley became one that was not only closed at one end, but beset by obstacles that prevented one from seeing to the end of the alley.  Ergo, if things were blocked from sight, it left people blinded (albeit temporarily).

As a secondary side note to this first side note, it should be noted that on September 19, 1702 Jupiter occulted Neptune from the Earth (such planet occultations being extremely rare according to astronomers).  While some use the words occulted, eclipsed and transited interchangeably, there are very set differences between the three conditions.

An eclipse  happens when an object moves into another object’s shadow (you can sometimes still see both objects).

A transit happens when an object passes in front of another (but does not obstruct the view of the planet).

An occult is when an object is completely hidden from view because the object passing before it lies directly in one’s line of sight.

So, yes, on September 19, 1702, Jupiter blinded people on Earth … but only if they hoped to see Neptune that night!

Getting back to the expression spit or go blind, that exact expression (as previously mentioned) can be tagged to the 1920s but Idiomation was unable to take it back any further.  However, it appears that the expression was about 200 (if you go with 1702) or 300 (if you go with 1610) years in the making before it was first used.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

One Bad Apple Spoils The Whole Barrel

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 27, 2013

All it takes is one bad apple to spoil the barrel, and that’s because the one apple that’s gone bad gives off ethylene, speeding the ripening of all the other apples in the same barrel as the bad apple. But what does it mean when you’re talking about something other than a real apple?

If someone in a group is referred to as a bad apple, best be aware that this could be the downfall of the whole group. In other words, the negative influence of one in a group could prove to be the undoing of the entire group that would otherwise — without the negative influence — remain good.

Of course, it’s true that every group of people also has those who are malcontents, troublemakers, or dishonest. Unfortunately, if such people have sway or influence on others in their group, studies have shown that the standards of the group as a whole begin a downward trajectory towards the negative behavior.

The Windsor Daily Star chose to publish a Letter To The Editor written by Mrs. M. Starchuck of Sub P.O. No. 11, in their February 16, 1939 edition. The author of the letter entitled, “World Not So Bad After All” addressed the issue of complaints about how bad things are in the world. A realistic woman, she appears to also have been a woman of considerable optimism and warmth as she wrote in part:

Relief in some cases has been abused, making it harder for the honest persons to get justice. You know that one bad apple spoils the whole barrel. But cheer up. It can’t last forever, and it is always the darkest before the dawn. There are a good many big-hearted people in the old world yet, and willing workers to help the down-trodden.

And in the Chautauqua Farmer of June 20, 1894 printed a lengthy article on the world journey of Reverend Dr. Talmage whose sermon “Another Chance” addressed the matter of what was to happen to people when they passed away and moved on to that other plane when they left this mortal coil. The one chance given in life, according to Dr. Talmage, was the last change given before the verdict would be rendered on each of our earthly lives. There was no reversal of judgment in the next world, according to his sermon, and no hope of an opportunity to correct the mistakes of this life in the afterlife. His sermon stated in part:

The entire kingdom of the morally bankrupt by themselves, where are the salvatory influences to come from? Can one speckled and bad apple in a barrel of disease apples turn the other apples good? Can those who are themselves down help others up? Can those who have themselves failed in the business of soul pay the debts of their spiritual insolvents? Can a million wrongs make one right?

As readers of Idiomation know, the Poor Richard’s Almanack published by Benjamin Franklin oftentimes contained well-established sayings and the 1736 edition was no different where the following was found:

The rotten apple spoils his companion.

The saying hails from John Northebrooke in his book entitled, “A Treatise Wherein Dicing, Dauncing (etc.) Are Reproved” published in 1577. The passage exact passage was:

A penny naughtily gotten, sayth Chysostoms, is like a rotten apple laid among sounde apples, which will rot all the rest.

Long before John Northebrooke, however, there was Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 25 October 1400).  In his “Canterbury Tales” readers come across the following passage in unfinished “The Cook’s Tale.”

Uppon a proverbe that seith this same worde:
“Better ys rotten appulle out of an hurde
Than for to let hem rote alle the remenaunte.”
And ryght so it fareth by a ryotes servaunte.

This passage loosely translates as this:

About an old proverb, the words that say:
“A rotten apple‘s better thrown away
Before it spoils the barrel.” That is true
When dealing with a bad apprentice too.

That Chaucer should refer to this saying as an old proverb indicates that he is not the original author of the expression.  Unfortunately, the proverb to which Chaucer refers has eluded research and as such, Idiomation tacks this expression to at least the 13th Century since it is alleged to be a proverb.  It’s suspected, however, that the saying is far older than this even though it cannot be proven at this point on the Idiomation blog.

Posted in Idioms from the 13th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Printer’s Devil

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 10, 2011

While it’s been quite some time since the term printer’s devil may have been used, there was a time when the expression was quite common.  Back in the day, a printer’s devil was the errand boy in a printing establishment.  Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and Lyndon B. Johnson all had jobs as a printer’s devil when they were young lads.  In time, any errors that were found in print were referred to as a printer’s devil and so a printer’s devil also came to mean mistakes in the printed media.

On August 15, 2010 the Sunday Observer in Sri Lanka published a weekly column by Edwin Ariyadasa entitled, “Sunday Monologue.”  In that particular column, the following is found:

In some instances, the impish printer’s devil slinks past the keen eye of the editors, and gets embedded in the text of a column. On one glaring occasion, this miscreant was at work, on my column titled “World without Sir Arthur C.”  The mischievous printer’s devil, detected a letter I quoted. It was written by Sir Arthur C. on my 85th birthday. It began with the routine Dear Edwin. Resenting this endeavourment, the terrible imp, Printer’s Devil turned it with “Deer Ediwn.”

On January 19, 1954 the Calgary Herald ran this obituary about retired Senator William Henry Dennis who had passed away suddenly at the age of 66.  The obituary read in part:

Senator Dennis was appointed to the Senate in 1932 by Rt. Hon. R. B. Bennett, former Conservative prime minister.  He joined the Halifax Herald when he was 12 years old as a printer’s devil and worked his way in managing director and then publisher.  He returned to Ottawa Sunday night from his home in Halifax for resumption of Senate sittings tonight.  He died at his Ottawa residence.

On October 23, 1902 the Fielding Star newspaper for Kiwitea and Oroua counties in New Zealand ran a story entitled, “Church And The Press.”  The story addressed the Church Congress, the opening address by the Right Reverend Dr. Harmer and newspapers.  The following is found in this news report:

After this excellent tribute, the Congress was prepared to join with interest in a debate on “Church and Press,” when the first speaker was an Adelaid Pressman, Mr. W. J. Sowden, who declared himself and his brethren to be emphatically on the side of the angels.  “Although there is a printer’s devil in the newspaper office, there is also a chapel,” said Mr. Sowden, and a clergyman quoted, “When God erects a house of prayer, the devil builds a chapel there.”

Slipped between serious news stories in the January 18, 1853 edition of the British Colonist and North American Railway Journal was a 4-line poem signed quite simply, Printer’s Devil.  The poem, in its entirety is reproduced here.

A dollar a year, said Dick for the Sun,
Isn’t that cheap? — young son of a gun!
As “cheap as dirt” — said I with a quiz
And so it should be, for dirt it is.

In the song “Ode To The Printer’s Devil” composed by Ned Ward in June 1823, the author states that it is “an ode founded on fact” and is written for the printer’s devil “who brought me a proof to be corrected, and who fell asleep while it was undergoing correction: — being.”

On January 3, 1791 the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer ran a story in which the expression “printer’s devil” is used and again a year later on May 7, 1792 in an obituary for Reverend John Lewis, Pastor a church in Wethersfield.

The first printer — as well as the first retailer of printed books — in England was translator and publisher, William Caxton (1422 – 1492) whose first book printed in England was the self-published, “Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres” on November 18, 1477.  But this was not his first shot at being a printer.  Because “[his] pen became worn, [his] hand weary, [his eye dimmed” he decided to set up a press in Bruges in 1473. 

At the time, the printing industry was in its infancy and it was significantly influenced by German printing.  The first book produced by William Caxton at this press and printed in English was ” Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye” in 1474, followed by “The Game And Playe Of The Chesse” published in 1476.  He published most of the English literature available in his day including Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

As a side note, Chaucer imported printing blocks and letters from Germany where there was no “the” sound.  To solve the problem of the non-existent “th” he placed the letter “y” in its place.  And so, “the” appeared as “ye” in published works and the practice of using “y” in place of “th” continued for another 200 years until publishers finally used “th” where “th” was meant to be used.

Rumour has it that he had an apprentice whose last name was Deville.  Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to find proof that such an individual apprenticed under Caxton.  What Idiomation can confirm is that somewhere in the 300 years between William Caxton‘s death and the phrase appearing in a newspaper story in Connecticut in 1791, the printer’s devil was born.

Posted in Idioms from the 15th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Many A True Word Is Said In Jest

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 7, 2011

Have you ever been the brunt of a someone’s cutting remark only to have that person recant with the comment “just kidding” and a big grin on the speaker’s face?  All of us have found ourselves in that position from time to time.  Contrary to popular misconception, however, the “just kidding” comment only serves to take some of the sting out of what the speakers believes to be true about his or her subject.

Recently, on March 2, 2011 the Mail and Guardian newspaper in Cape Town carried a story about South African government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi and his comments about Indian South Africans.  The Democratic Alliance Federal Chairperson, Wilmot James, took Jimmy Manyi to task for his remarks.  The newspaper reported the following:

Contacted for comment on Wednesday, Manyi confirmed he had made the remarks in his Durban address, but said they were in jest.  “The remarks were made in jest; just a jest, on a light note. I was quoting figures at the time. The remark was really just made in jest,” he said.  He declined to comment further.

On May 7, 1905 the New York Times published a story their regular column, “The Financial Situation.”  The story addressed the large decline on Wall Street over the course of 14 days — larger than what had been seen in several months leading up to those two weeks.  It stated in part:

It may seem a sorry jest to those whose margins have run off, and who find themselves out on the sidewalk just as the fiddler scrapes a merrier tune.  And yet, many a true word is spoken in jest.

On January 30, 1849 in the Public Ledger newspaper of St. John’s, Newfoundland (Canada), an article appeared where the identities of the parties involved was kept from readers.  The storyteller, however, regaled readers with a personal experience that began aboard the Washington steamer bound to New York where she met an English woman married to an American merchant from New York.  Years later, the storyteller read of the American merchant’s death in the obituaries and she wondered about the English woman she had met years ago.  As life would have it, the storyteller contracted yellow fever while living in New Orleans and her doctor advised her to return to England.  She set out towards New York but upon arriving there, she was so ill that she contacted a doctor that the English woman on the Washington steamer had mentioned in conversation.  The story ended with:

After prescribing for me, and receiving the customary fee of two dollars, he was about to leave the room; when a few words from me nailed him to the spot.  They were these, “Pray, Doctor, is Mrs. A— still in New York?”  He coloured slightly — looked first at me, then at his boots — at length said, “She is; and at my house; we were married a month ago.”  I was thunderstruck.  Many a true word is spoken in jest!

In Jonathan Swift’s “A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation In Several Dialogues” in published in 1738, the following exchange between Miss Notable, Colonel Atwit and Mr. Neverout is found:

MISS NOTABLE:
I vow, madam, I saw something in black; I thought it was a spirit.

COLONEL ATWIT:
Why, miss, did you ever see a spirit?

MISS NOTABLE:
No, sir; I thank God I never saw any thing worse than myself.

MR. NEVEROUT:
Well, I did a very foolish thing yesterday, and was a great puppy for my pains.

MISS NOTABLE:
Very likely; for they say, many a true word’s spoke in jest.

In “The Merry Man’s Resolution or A London Frollick” written by Thomas Joy, a ballad singer of Oxford, and found in the “Roxburghe Ballads” published in 1665, we read:

Be n’t angry with this fellow, I protest
That many a true word hath been spoke in jest.
By degrees he layes a wager, money’s scant
Until five shillings out; then ends his Rant.

In the book, “Proverbs in Scot” by J. Carmichael and published in 1628 the following proverb is found.  Keep in mind that in 1628, suith meant true and bourding meant jesting also known as joking or, more recently, kidding:

Manie suith word said in bourding.

The sense of the proverb, however, can be traced back to Geoffrey Chaucer and his “Monk’s Prologue I” found in his “Canterbury Tales” of 1390.  Again, the word sooth meant true and since the speaker mentions that truth is “ofte in game” we can take that to mean he is referring to jesting which we now know is kidding.

This maketh that oure wyves wole assaye
Religious folk, for ye mowe bettre paye
Of Venus paiementz than mowe we;
God woot, no lussheburghes payen ye!
But be nat wrooth, my lord, though that I pleye.
Ful ofte in game a sooth I have herd seye!”

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this expression “many a true word is said in jest” however that it would appear in the Canterbury Tales implies that it was common knowledge at the time putting the expression to at least the mid 1300s.

Posted in Idioms from the 14th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 31, 2010

The old saying, let sleeping dogs lie, means more than just to let sleeping dogs lie, which is very sound advice in the first place.  It also means that one ought not instigate trouble.  In other words, people should leave situations or people alone else it might cause them trouble.

The Atlanta Constitution newspaper reported on a court case on August 6, 1909 that dealt with a Mr. Jerome who had menaced a Mr. Carvalho who had threatened Mr. Jerome.  The article read in part:

“You’d better let sleeping dogs lie, Mr. Jerome,” exclaimed the witness, before the district attorney had said a word. As he spoke the expert’s eyes flashed and he pointed an agitated finger at Jerome.

In November of 1870, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Russia and India: The Frontier of the Russian Empire.”  The article asked whether England was on the verge of losing its Asiatic possessions.

Let us consider why Russia has gained enough to suppose she is sufficiently strong to infringe the wholesome rule to “let sleeping dogs lie” when applied to the English. The Crimean War showed her plainly that her people were barbarians, and that her strength lay in brute force.

The saying “let sleeping dogs lie” was a favourite of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, who exercised considerable influence over King George I as well as King George II from 1721 through to 1742.  He was quoted as saying this on more than one occasion regardless of whether it had to do with matters of the King’s Court, the American Revolution or any other situation where difficulties had arisen.

Geoffrey Chaucer used a similar phrase in his story, Troilus and Criseyde, published in 1374.

It is nought good a sleepyng hound to wake.

It’s recorded in French even earlier in the 14th century, as found in the Proverbia Vulgalia et Latina, where the saying is:  “Ne reveillez pas le chien qui dort.”  Translation: Do not wake the dog that sleeps.

As the phrase is referenced in the Proverbia Vulgalia et Latina, it is most likely that it comes from the Latin saying, “Quieta non movere” which means “Do not move settled things.”

That being said, the Book of Proverbs (26:17) says:

He that passes by, and meddles with strife belonging not to him, is like one that takes a dog by the ears.

In other words, the saying “let sleeping dogs lie” has its roots in the Bible.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Bible, Christian, Idioms from the 14th Century, Religious References, Rome | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »